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A Journey Across the Main Stream: Games for My Mother-in-Law
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A Journey Across the Main Stream: Games for My Mother-in-Law

September 1, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

The Little Box in The Corner

Given explicit advice to do so, Subject M finally opened the closet door and was rewarded with a stack of cheese the size of a full-grown man. She clicked on it, and Sam grabbed a hunk. It now fell to her to give this hunk of cheese to Jimmy Two-Teeth, the rat who was demanding it as ransom.

The way the player is meant to accomplish this is by selecting the cheese in the inventory and then clicking on the hole where Jimmy lives. What actually happened was that Subject M repeatedly clicked on the stack of cheese in the closet, and then on the hole.

This is a perfectly rational thing to do, particularly if the game has not gone to any effort to explain what an inventory is or how it's used. The concept of inventory is second nature to your typical gamer, but to the public at large, not so much. It's not difficult and it's fairly intuitive, but you do have to explain it.

It occurred to me at this point that Subject M had never tried to click on the icon in the corner of the screen, the one that brings up the inventory, despite the fact that it looks like a cardboard box, which is a terrific hiding place for cheese.

I asked her why this was. It turns out that she had, in fact, thought to look there for cheese, but because there was no pop-up text when she moved the mouse over the box icon, she assumed it was inert.

And here I thought she wasn't paying attention to the pop-up text! But no: although the pop-up text did not encourage her to explore all of the clickable items, establishing it as a convention DID cause her to overlook the rest of the UI, despite the fact that the UI calls itself out visually in other ways. Either some consistency is called for, or each type of element needs to be individually introduced.

Solve the Puzzle

Once I had explained the use of the inventory, Subject M was able to successfully offer cheese to Jimmy Two-Teeth. This is the point in the narrative at which the player encounters the game's first actual puzzle -- something requiring a small mental leap. Jimmy reminds you that he has demanded not just cheese, but Swiss cheese specifically. This stuff you're trying to fob off on him is clearly not Swiss cheese, because there are no holes in it.

Now, in addition to the cheese he's just acquired, Sam is also carrying a handgun (he is a freelance policeman, after all). We expect the player to notice said handgun, resting comfortably in the inventory, when the inventory is opened to offer the cheese to Jimmy. They are then meant to have a small aha moment and use the gun to shoot holes in the cheese, so that Jimmy will be fooled into thinking it is Swiss cheese.

Also working in the player's favor here is the fact that nothing else in the environment can be picked up at all, so the decision about what to do next is made from a pool of very few options.

Subject M took a different path and continued looking around the room for more cheese, hoping to find some Swiss -- which is a perfectly rational approach, and perhaps even the most likely one given what we had shown her so far. When it became obvious that there was no more cheese anywhere, she was at a loss for what to do next.

I pointed out the gun in Sam's inventory. She had noticed it, it turns out, but didn't see what relevance it had to the Swiss cheese issue. I pointed out that guns could be used to shoot holes in things... All kinds of things. I further commented that Swiss cheese was known for having holes in it.

She countered that shooting holes in the cheese would not magically turn it into Swiss cheese. It would still be the wrong kind; it would just have holes in it. I had to admit she had a point.

In the first place, we hadn't managed to make it clear to Subject M that this was the sort of game where she was going to have to do some thinking in order to make progress. But over and above that, we hadn't given her any guidance as to how to think.

She was trying to use her real-world knowledge and logic, because neither Sam nor Max had gone to sufficient lengths to demonstrate that theirs was the kind of world where shooting a wedge of cheese would put neat little holes in it instead of splattering it all over the wall, and where an otherwise rational character would be taken in by this ruse and believe it to be Swiss cheese. The fact that they are cartoons probably helps, but Subject M shows us that this is not enough to establish the proper mindset.

At this point, Subject M ran out of interest, and I let her off the hook. I figured we'd both learned enough.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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